Wendell Scott: A Race Story (NASCAR Racing Documentary)
Documentary on legendary stock car racing driver Wendell Scott, his life and career. Wendell Oliver Scott (August 29, 1921 — December 23, 1990) was an American stock car racing driver from Danville, Virginia. He is the only black driver to win a race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. According to a 2008 biography of Scott, he broke the color barrier in Southern stock car racing on May 23, 1952, at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway. The book, “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” by Brian Donovan (Steerforth Press), says that after gaining experience and winning some local races at various Virginia tracks, Scott became the first African-American to obtain a NASCAR racing license, apparently in 1953, although NASCAR does not have the exact date. The book says that Scott’s career was repeatedly affected by racial prejudice and problems with top-level NASCAR officials. However, his determined struggle as an underdog won him thousands of white fans and many friends and admirers among his fellow racers.
(August 29, 1921 – December 23, 1990) was an American stock car racing driver from Danville, Virginia. He is the only black driver to win a race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. According to a 2008 biography of Scott, he broke the color barrier in Southern stock car racing on May 23, 1952, at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway. The book, “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” by Brian Donovan (Steerforth Press), says that after gaining experience and winning some local races at various Virginia tracks, Scott became the first African-American to obtain a NASCAR racing license, apparently in 1953, although NASCAR does not have the exact date. The book says that Scott’s career was repeatedly affected by racial prejudice and problems with top-level NASCAR officials. However, his determined struggle as an underdog won him thousands of white fans and many friends and admirers among his fellow racers.
From boyhood, Scott wanted to be his own boss. In Danville, two industries dominated the local economy: cotton mills and tobacco-processing plants. Scott vowed to avoid that sort of boss-dominated life. “That mill’s too much like a prison,” he told a friend. “You go in and they lock a gate behind you and you can’t get out until you’ve done your time.” (This quotation and those that follow are from “Hard Driving” and are posted here by the book’s author.) He began learning auto mechanics from his father, who worked as a driver and mechanic for two well-to-do white families. Scott and his sister Guelda were awed by their father’s daring behind the wheel. “He frightened people to death,” Guelda said. “They say he’d come through town just about touching the ground. After Wendell started racing, all the old people would say the same thing: ‘He’s just like his daddy.'” Scott raced bicycles against white boys. In his neighborhood, he said, “I was the only black boy that had a bicycle.” He became a daredevil on roller skates, speeding down Danville’s steep hills on one skate. He dropped out of high school, became a taxi driver, married Mary Coles and served in the segregated Army in Europe during World War II.
After the war, he ran an auto-repair shop. As a sideline, he took up the dangerous, illegal pursuit of running moonshine whiskey. This trade gave quite a few early stock car racers such as Junior Johnson and Big Bill France their education in building fast cars and outrunning the police. The police caught Scott only once, in 1949. Sentenced to three years probation, he continued making his late-night whiskey runs. On weekends, he would go to the stock car races in Danville, sitting in the blacks-only section of the bleachers, and he would wish that he too could be racing on the speedway.
The Danville races were run by the Dixie Circuit, one of several regional racing organizations that competed with NASCAR during that era. Danville’s events always made less money than the Dixie Circuit’s races at other tracks. “We were a tobacco and textile town — people didn’t have the money to spend,” said Aubrey Ferrell, one of the organizers. The officials decided they would try an unusual, and unprecedented, promotional gimmick: They would recruit a Negro driver to compete against the “good ol’ boys.” To their credit, they wanted a fast black driver, not just a fall guy to look foolish. They asked the Danville police who the best Negro driver in town was. The police recommended the moonshine runner whom they had chased many times and caught only once. Scott brought one of his whiskey-running cars to the next race, and Southern stock car racing gained its first black driver. (Scott’s debut often has been reported as taking place in the 1940s, but articles in two Danville newspapers, the Register and the Commercial Appeal, confirm the date as May 23, 1952.) Some spectators booed him, and his car broke down during the race. But Scott realized immediately that he wanted a career as a driver. “Right from the first, I loved driving that car in that race.”
The next day, however, brought the first of many episodes of discrimination that would plague his racing career. Scott repaired his car and towed it to a NASCAR-sanctioned race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But the NASCAR officials refused to let him compete. Black drivers were not allowed, they said. As he drove home, Scott recalled, “I had tears in my eyes.” A few days later he went to another NASCAR event in High Point, North Carolina. Again, Scott said, the officials “just flat told me I couldn’t race. They told me I could let a white boy drive my car. I told ’em weren’t no damn white boy going to drive my car.” Scott decided to avoid NASCAR for the time being and race with the Dixie Circuit and at other non-NASCAR speedways. He won his first race at Lynchburg, Virginia, only twelve days into his racing career. It was just a short heat race in the amateur class, but for Scott, the victory was like a barb on a hook. He knew that he had found his calling.
He ran as many as five events a week, mostly at Virginia tracks. Some spectators would shout racial slurs, but many others began rooting for him. Some prejudiced drivers would wreck him deliberately. They “just hammered on Wendell,” former chief NASCAR photographer T. Taylor Warren said. “They figured he wasn’t going to retaliate.” And they were right–Scott felt that because of the racial atmosphere, he could not risk becoming involved in the fist-fights and dirty-driving paybacks that frequently took place among the white drivers.
Many other drivers, however, came to respect Scott. They saw his skills as a mechanic and driver, and they liked his quiet, uncomplaining manner. They saw him as someone similar to themselves, another hard-working blue-collar guy swept up in the adrenalin rush of racing, not somebody trying to make a racial point. “He was a racer — you could look at somebody and tell whether they were a racer or not,” said driver Rodney Ligon, who was also a moonshine runner. “Didn’t nobody send him [to the track] to represent his race — he come down because he wanted to drive a damn racecar.” Some white drivers became his close friends and also occasionally acted as his bodyguards.
Some Southern newspapers began writing positive stories about Scott’s performance. He began the 1953 season on the northern Virginia circuit, for example, by winning a feature race in Staunton. Then he tied the Waynesboro qualifying record. A week later he won the Waynesboro feature, after placing first in his heat race and setting a new qualifying record. The Waynesboro News Virginian reported that Scott had become “recognized as one of the most popular drivers to appear here.” The Staunton News Leader said he “has been among the top drivers in every race here.”
Scott understood, though, that to rise in the sport, he somehow had to gain admission to the all-white ranks of NASCAR. He did not know NASCAR’s celebrated founder and president, Bill France, who ran the organization like a czar. Instead, Scott found a way, essentially, to slip into NASCAR through a side door, without the knowledge or consent of anyone at NASCAR’s Daytona Beach headquarters. He towed his racecar to a local NASCAR event at the old Richmond Speedway, a quarter-mile dirt oval, and asked the steward, Mike Poston, to grant him a NASCAR license. Poston, a part-timer, was not a powerful figure in NASCAR’s hierarchy, but he did have the authority to issue licenses.
He asked Scott if he knew what he was getting into. “I told him we’ve never had any black drivers, and you’re going to be knocked around,” Poston said. “He said, ‘I can take it.'” Poston approved Scott’s license. Later he confided to Scott that officials at NASCAR headquarters had not been pleased with his decision. “He told me that when they found out at Daytona Beach that he had signed me up, they raised hell with him,” Scott said.
Scott met Bill France for the first time in April 1954. The night before, Scott said, the promoter at a NASCAR event in Raleigh, North Carolina, had given gas money to all of the white drivers who came to the track but refused to pay Scott anything. Scott said he approached France in the pits at the Lynchburg speedway and told him what had happened. Even though France and the Raleigh promoter were friends, Scott said France immediately pulled some money out of his pocket and assured Scott that NASCAR would never treat him with prejudice. “He let me know my color didn’t have anything to do with anything,” Scott said. “He said, ‘You’re a NASCAR member, and as of now you will always be treated as a NASCAR member.’ And instead of giving me fifteen dollars, he reached in his pocket and gave me thirty dollars.”
Scott won dozens of races during his nine years in regional-level competition. His driving talent, his skill as a mechanic and his hard work earned him the admiration of thousands of white fans and many of his fellow racers, despite the racial prejudice that was widespread during the 1950’s. In 1959 he won two championships. NASCAR awarded him the championship title for drivers of sportsman-class stock cars in the state of Virginia, and he also won the track championship in the sportsman class at Richmond’s Southside Speedway. Even at this early stage of his racing, Scott would tell friends privately that his goal was to win races at the top level of NASCAR. For the rest of his career he would pursue a dream whose fulfillment depended heavily upon whether France backed up that promise.
In 1961, he moved up to Grand National (now Sprint Cup). In the 1963 season, he finished 15th in points, and on December 1 of that year, driving a Chevrolet Bel Air that he purchased from Ned Jarrett, he won a race on the half-mile dirt track at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida — the first (and, to date, only) Grand National event won by an African-American (Darrell Wallace Jr. recently became the second African-American driver in NASCAR’s top 3 series to win with his win at Martinsville in 2013). Scott passed Richard Petty, who was driving an ailing car, with 25 laps remaining for the win. Scott was not announced as the winner of the race at the time, presumably due to the racist culture of the time. Buck Baker, the second-place driver, was initially declared the winner, but race officials discovered two hours later that Scott had not only won, but was two laps in front of the rest of the field. NASCAR awarded Scott the win two years later, but his family never actually received the trophy he had earned till 2010–47 years after the race, and 20 years after Scott had died.
He continued to be a competitive driver despite his low-budget operation through the rest of the 1960s. In 1964, Scott finished 12th in points despite missing several races. Over the next five years, Scott consistently finished in the top ten in the point standings. He finished 11th in points in 1965, was a career-high 6th in 1966, 10th in 1967, and finished 9th in both 1968 and 1969. His top year in winnings was 1969 when he won $47,451 ($305,159.02 in today’s money).
Scott was forced to retire due to injuries from a racing accident at Talladega, Alabama in 1973. He achieved one win and 147 top ten finishes in 495 career Grand National starts.
Scott died on December 23, 1990 in Danville, Virginia, having suffered from spinal cancer.
Mojo Nixon, a fellow Danville native, wrote a tribute song titled “The Ballad of Wendell Scott”, which appears on Nixon and Skid Roper’s 1986 album, Frenzy.
Inducted as a member of the 2000 class of The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum located in Portsmouth, VA. <http://vshfm.com/inductees/inductee_details.php?inducteeID=220>
Scott has a street named after him in his hometown of Danville.
Only six other black drivers are known to have started at least one race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series: Elias Bowie, Charlie Scott, George Wiltshire, Randy Bethea, Willy T. Ribbs and, most recently, Bill Lester, who made the field for races at Atlanta and Michigan in 2006. Those drivers have made a combined nine Cup starts.
Filmmaker John W. Warner directed a documentary about Scott, titled The Wendell Scott Story, released in 2003 with narration by the filmmaker’s father, former U.S. Senator John Warner. The film included interviews with fellow race-car drivers, including Richard Petty.
Scott is prominently featured in the 1975 book The World’s Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great Stock Car Racing Book, written by Jerry Bledsoe.
In April 2012, Scott was nominated for inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and was selected for induction in the 2015 class, in May 2014. In January 2013, Scott was awarded his own historical marker in Danville, Virginia. The marker’s statement will be “Persevering over prejudice and discrimination, Scott broke racial barriers in NASCAR, with a 13-year career that included 20 top five and 147 top ten finishes.”